Speeding up decision cycles with rules and heuristics

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. Following a thread of ideas to an interesting idea about productivity and work.


One of my favourite features of the web as a medium is how generously it rewards curiosity:

  1. You happen on a page—somebody’s notes and ideas riffing off somebody else’s notes and ideas.

  2. You pull on that thread—head down into the rabbit hole following link after link, making search after search, connecting idea after idea that otherwise look unconnected.

  3. You come to your senses after spending an evening diving into an issue, following interlinked thoughts along the web like a child running its finger along a tapestry’s gold thread, curious to see where it leads.

It’s fun. It’s enlightening. And very often it leads you to places that either change or clarify your thinking.

This here is the tail of a thread, ready for you to pull on if you want to unravel an evening. It’s well worth it.


First up is Christina Wodtke who regularly writes and presents excellent work on product development, design, and management. (She’s awesome. I’m a huge fan of hers.)

She has a problem that I find incredibly familiar: difficulties getting priorities in order; uncertainty about how to pick and choose opportunities and meetings; career and life things.

She talks about an approach that is utterly obvious and yet so hard: just decide on what’s important and set up rules that help you stay on the path.

I knew this one. The most common conversation I have with seniors is, what job should I take? And I always walk them through their values, and then ask them what they are optimizing for: Money? Learning? Culture? Prestige? Community? After listing all the things they want from a job, then picking the top 3-5, they could rate each opportunity based on their own values.

I now have a criteria for how I spend my time.

How to Choose by Christina (537 words).

She talks about how to set a personal mission and using that as the gauge you use to measure the rest.

This thread links over to what seems to be a Stanford professor’s book pitch.

It’s an interesting pitch, which is a nice surprise. One that neatly presents the book’s core idea in a charming and somewhat convincing way.

The rules work best in situations where people and organizations need to make decisions and take action quickly. Think of doctors in an army field hospital who must decide how to manage a sudden flood of casualties or a new company’s leadership team that must identify and win revenue-generating customers before it burns through its capital.

Conquering Complexity With Simple Rules by Theodore Kinni (1005 words).

The pitch is that you can use rules—heuristics essentially—to speed up your decision making and make your actions more consistent with your goals. By setting up rules in advance for specific situations what you are doing, kind of, is make your reasoning about a situation in advance, when you have more time, instead on in the situation when you have to make a quick decision.

Not only is this likely to work, given the right context, it has been proven to work by many people in many situations up to the point that it has its own military jargon.

That jargon is, of course, now a part of our business language. Business likes the connotations of blood and violence that comes with words that organise violence. It feeds off the language of war because it is a field that’s male-dominated and aggressive to such a point that the veins of your average executive pump with testosterone, semen, and rancid aftershave. The only blood in business is the metaphorical fluent pouring out of your enemy’s metaphorical wounds.

But I digress. My point here is that this has been said before. In the military world, there was once a man called John Boyd

The phrase OODA loop refers to the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act, developed by military strategist and USAF Colonel John Boyd. Boyd applied the concept to the combat operations process, often at the strategic level in military operations. It is now also often applied to understand commercial operations and learning processes. The approach favors agility over raw power in dealing with human opponents in any endeavor.

OODA loop from Wikipedia (729 words)

John Boyd was an interesting fellow who, if I recall correctly, once stated that true freedom was the autonomy that came with not being beholden to others.

I may well be misattributing that, picking up the idea from a different thread and a different person, but Boyd did outline the basics of the OODA loop and that makes him smarter than your average bear.

The idea behind the OODA loop is that every decision cycle is made up of four stages:

  1. Observe.
  2. Orient.
  3. Decide.
  4. Act.

In stage one you take in your surroundings. In stage two you turn that observation into an understanding of your context. In stage three you decide what the best course of action in this context is. In stage for you take that action.

By setting up the rules as Kathleen Eisenhardt (the Stanford professor mentioned above) suggests, what you’re doing is create a short-circuit between stage one and four. If you make an observation that matches a rule, you make the corresponding action. No need to orient yourself and understand your context. No need to decide. If this, then that.

This immediately highlights the drawbacks to this approach. You can’t apply it to ambiguous situations.

But by using rules to spend less time on unambiguous situations, you get more time to spend sorting out the ambiguous ones. It’s a win.


My thesis is that quality/excellence/fidelity of that final product given time and resource constraints is a function of the number of iterations the team was able to make within the available time.

The cost of failure by Malte Ubl (933 words).

The reason why all of this is important is that productivity and the quality of your work doesn’t depend directly on how much time you spend on it. Time spent is a proxy measure for how many decision cycles—how often you go through observation, orientation, decision, and action—you have spent on the project. The number of the loops is what matters, not the actual time.

Speeding up your decision loop is often more effective at improving the output quality of creative or knowledge work than merely spending more time on them.

And using rules to cut through the crap can help you do that.


Speeding up the cycles (updated, 17 May, 14:00 BST)

Seth Godin touches on a few similar ideas.

How do you get to market faster the competition? How do you become more efficient without violating the laws of physics? How do you save time, money and frustration?

How to go faster by Seth Godin (216 words).

I like this bit:

You rarely need more time. Mostly, you must merely choose to decide.